Hey everyone, I’m Austin Shin, former UK and US National Scrabble Champion, and here is Austin’s Annotated Scrabble Games #1

I’m going to go through one of my annotated games move by move with you from 2017, the final game of the US National Championship. It may be one of the most nerve-racking games that I’ve ever played, and it was the deciding game of that National Championship.

The game was live-streamed with commentary, and a video of the finale is on YouTube, so please feel free to watch the game here if you have spare time.

Setting the Scene

I traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, to participate in the 2017 North American Scrabble Championship (NASC, commonly known as the US National Championship), a 31-game tournament played over five days. Going into the final day with three games to go, I was in second place, a win behind the leader, the tournament’s top seed, and one of the GOATs of US Scrabble, Dave Wiegand (DW). We had just played in the tournament’s penultimate game, where I had to beat Dave to keep my tournament chances alive, which you can watch here too. Fortunately, after several errors on my part, I managed to come from behind and win by 28 points. This forced a final round showdown, where we play again, and the winner will take the championship.


DW Move 1: UNJOIN D8a for 28 points

DW Move 1


AS Move 1: ZOON G7a for 50 points

My first mistake had already happened before I had even made a move. UNJOIN is not an acceptable word in the Collins lexicon, and I didn’t challenge the move! However, ZOON plays for a ton of points and sets up my S in column K for future use. ZOON is better than ZOO as my leave (the tiles kept for the next move) consists of three consonants instead of four. This allows for more chances to pick up some vowels to balance out this heavy consonant rack while scoring an extra point.


DW Move 2: OAKY F9a for 55 points. Total Score: 83



DW Move 2


AS Move 2: DURNS K3d for 26 points. Total Score: 76

I have only one vowel and six consonants and no bingo, so playing off many tiles while continuing to score is the general idea here. DURNS (or RUNDS or NURDS) keeps a substantial leave of LS, unduplicates the S, and scores decently.


DW Move 3: HEAP L1d for 37 points. Total Score: 120

DW Move 3


AS Move 3: FIE D10a for 20 points. Total Score: 96

HEAP just blocked my bingo of FILA(R)EES (G5a), so I no longer have a playable bingo. Now, this move requires some extra thought. We need to consider three aspects of the play: the move score, your leave, and what dangerous plays you may give away to your opponent.

Plays like FLES(H) (H1a) or S(H)ELF (K1a) score well, but my leave is AEI, which is absolutely terrible. These plays also use my S, which I hope to score more points with later in the game. Keeping an F is not conducive to bingoing, so playing along row 1 is not the strongest play. You should not feel the need to always use a triple word whenever it becomes available, as it could be detrimental to your rack. This is one of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced Scrabble players.

As my tiles here aren’t far away from a bingo, I should be trying to work towards one. To give myself the best chance to get a bingo, the F should be played, an E should be played as I have two of them, and another vowel. The additional vowel to play is to ensure that there is a better balance between vowels and consonants on my rack. Most words in English generally have the same or more consonants than vowels; therefore, we should always try to keep in mind the ratio of consonants to vowels. Having two of each as a leave is good. Keeping one or two more consonants than vowels is also a good ratio. As keeping an A is more beneficial than keeping an I, playing FIE is what I’m looking at, and I can play this at D10a. Not only does it score 20 points which is not bad, but the move also sets up a bingo lane for my S in row 11, making JOE(S). 

The triple letter at F10 is a hotspot that requires more attention than the triple word scores on row 1. Any word-making JO(W) or JO(Y), or any 5-letter word starting at B10, could be a high-scoring move for my opponent.

Playing FIE is a way to accomplish what I set out to do: the score isn’t too bad, it blocks high-scoring plays, and my leave of AELS is very strong. A high percentage of three-letter combinations will result in a bingo.


DW Move 4: EPHA(H) H1a for 39 points. Total Score: 159

DW Move 4


AS Move 4: AvAILES B2a for 68 points. Total Score: 164

The previous play paid off as I now have a bingo to play. There are two candidate plays, AvAILES or ALgESIA (B4a), for 71 points. Other bingos like AErIALS or mALAISE (B2a) allow for easy access to the triple word in the top left. AvAILES offers a defensive option as there are no 2-letter words with a V, so parallel plays on row 1 are hugely limited. I heavily preferred this more defensive option as three points are worth the sacrifice over ALgESIA, which allows my opponent to get an easy, high-scoring play using the triple word.


DW Move 5: CI(N)E I6a for 21 points. Total Score: 180

DW Move 5


AS Move 5: T(U)R(F)ED D7d for 20 points. Total Score: 184

I have unplayable bingos of TENDRIL and TRINDLE. An important point to consider is the balance between leave and score, i.e., whether I should aim to hit another bingo or break up this nice rack and score well. There are no high-scoring options available which effectively makes my decision to go for a bingo. I could play a short word at D1d, but there’s no easy way of setting up a good bingo lane.

My next idea is to look at the F in FIE. I could play some parallel plays like LED (C11a), but then I don’t have an E or S in hand to bingo there with either ID-E or ID-S or S-LED, which may benefit my opponent more greatly. Another option, like TILED (A11a), opens up the triple words needlessly and asks for trouble.

Plays down from the F like (F)IL or (F)ID don’t score much and leave me with a shortage of vowels. (F)LINT is dangerous as that opens up the triple word scores in row 15 with FLINT-S or FLINT-Y.

So I came up with the idea of playing T(U)R(F)ED. Scores relatively well keeps a decent leave, and doesn’t give much away. Generally, here, the onus would be on my opponent up the board, which I hope to capitalize on later. Not many great options to play here, but it pays to weigh up as many options as possible as these are the kind of tricky moves that can make or break a game.


DW Move 6: (D)ODGIEST D12a for 62 points. Total Score: 242

DW Move 6


AS Move 6: R(E)F I11d for 10 points. Total Score: 194

No doubt about it, (D)ODGIEST was a HUGE setback. I’m now about 60 behind on a pretty congested board, tiles are not good, and my chances of winning are at about 20% at best.

The mindset has to change like a flick of a switch. If I’m behind, then I have to play more attack-minded to mount a comeback. The first step is to see where I can realistically play a bingo on the board and whether these options are sufficient. Currently, the only places to bingo are parallel to DODGIEST in rows 11 or 13, which is difficult without vowels, column M with CINE(S) (though I would need an S or blank), or in column B through AvAILES, which does not score too well. 

Therefore, I felt the need to shake things up and get creative. I could easily go for a safer option like F(A)NG (D1d), but this doesn’t help too greatly in terms of having a good spot to play a bingo. This also allows Dave another chance to further shut down this board even more.

Instead, I played R(E)F (I11d). I keep GILNT, which does have a useful -ING combo, and as a one vowel and one consonant pickup is most likely, this has a decent shot at giving me a bingo on the next turn. Not only that, but R(E)F also opens up a more flexible bingo lane where I can hook an I or T (making REFI or REFT), which I have in hand. This is not the easiest to block as any play hooking REF would likely give me a triple word or another bingo lane in response. An important consideration to think about is not just about having a bingo on your rack, but also where it can be played.


DW Move 7: B(R)UIT H11a for 24 points. Total Score: 266

DW Move 7


AS Move 7: V(A)LETING B1d for 64 points. Total Score: 258

Phew! My only playable bingo wasn’t blocked, and if it was, honestly, I’m not quite sure what I’d do! 


DW Move 8: WAX A4d for 37 points. Total Score: 303

DW Move 8


AS Move 8: YOB M3d for 35 points. Total Score: 293

On this turn, not many options rival YOB, apart from YOBS, which scores 9 more points. As a general rule, keeping an S can be valued somewhere between 9-15 extra points as this gives you future scoring potential, though this depends on the situation and how the board is shaping up. With very few openings, keeping the S for BRUITS or REFS and having the last S tile in the game pushes the value of the S to the higher end of that evaluation scale. ABSEY (A8d) is a very high-scoring option, but the leave of DO is not ideal and may hinder me in future moves. Knowing one bingo can take the game, YOB leaves ADES and is highly conducive to a bingo, so this was the deciding factor for me.


DW Move 9: V(A)NG D1d for 24 points. Total Score: 327

DW Move 9


AS Move 9: ACTED A8d for 39 points. Total Score: 332

There are no playable bingos here, so I went with the high-scoring play, ACTED, keeping ES, one of the best two letter leaves in Scrabble (aside from blanks). Knowing that there is a blank unseen, playing off more tiles here gives you a greater chance of picking up the blank.


DW Move 10: WAI J10a for 33 points. Total Score: 360

DW Move 10


AS Move 10: SQUEaL I14a for 75 points. Total Score: 407

Absolutely unreal pickup after ACTED, not only picking the blank but the QU combo as well! It’s very easy to play this 75-point word in a heartbeat, but… composure! We’re nearing the end of the game, so let’s see what tiles are unseen.

There are 12 tiles unseen, which means that there are five tiles in the bag. SQUEaL plays six tiles, which empties the bag and leaves me susceptible to losing the game if Dave plays a bingo on his next move. A host of bingos like ARMOIRE, ARRIERO, EARLIER, EMAILER, and IMMORAL can fit on row 14 with the REF-I hook and at N5d, in which case I’ve already lost the game. It would be impossible to block both bingo lanes but my play blocks the most probable spot for Dave to bingo.

All other options don’t score enough or don’t block a bingo lane. 


DW Move 11: EMIR L15a for 29 points. Total Score: 389

DW Move 11


AS Move 11: MOTOR B11d for 21 points. Total Score: 428

Not much to say here, just don’t play a phony word and I would win!

DW Rack: ELR

DW Move 12: (WAI)LER J10a for 11 points. Total Score: 400

AS Rack: A, worth 1 point.

Final Score – DW: 402, AS: 428.

DW Move 12

And there we have it, the deciding game of the 2017 NASC. To date, this was my first and only US National Championship title, and I didn’t attend the following year to defend it, though I was runner-up in the 2019 NASC, my first since emigrating to the US. As of the time of writing, 2019 remains the last NASC to be held due to the pandemic, though the next NASC is due to take place in Baltimore, Maryland in 2022.

I hope this gave you an insight into the thought processes of a Scrabble Grandmaster and provided some learning points that you can use in your Scrabble games. More deep dives into top level Scrabble strategies coming soon!


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